What did Jesus mean when He said 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood' (Luke 22:20)?
Luke 22:20 records Jesus saying, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (cf. Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24). What does this mean? To answer this question, one must first understand the situational context of when and where this statement was said, then the biblical context to which Jesus was referring when He mentions the new covenant, and finally the cultural context of blood in the covenant making process.
Jesus made this statement during the annual Passover meal. Traditionally, the Passover meal has a prescribed order (called a Seder) in which Scripture is read, symbolic foods are eaten, and four different cups of wine are drunk, all for the purpose of helping to recall the exodus when God rescued His people out of Egypt (Exodus 11—13). Each cup of wine at Passover represents one of God's promises to rescue His people in Exodus 6:6–7. Two of those cups are drunk before the meal is served and two are drunk after the meal has been eaten.
Luke records that Jesus, "took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, 'This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'" (Luke 22:19–20). Given the pattern of the Seder, "the cup after they had eaten" would be the third cup, known as the Cup of Redemption. It represents God's promise to the Israelites before the exodus, "I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment" (Exodus 6:6). Jesus was making the connection that God was about to again redeem His people, this time through Jesus' arm outstretched on the cross suffering the judgment of death on behalf of sinful people (1 Peter 2:22–24). Redemption now comes through the spilt blood of Jesus. Knowing "this cup" is the Cup of Redemption during the Passover Seder sheds light on what Jesus meant.
We also need to understand what Jesus meant by "the new covenant." In Jeremiah 31:31—33:18, God promised that He would establish a new covenant with His people. Previously, God had made a covenant with Noah and all living creatures to never again destroy the earth by flood (Genesis 9:9–17). He made a covenant with Abraham to give him descendants who would possess the Promised Land and be a blessing to all the earth (Genesis 12:1–9; 15:1–21; 17:1–27). He also made a covenant with David that his descendants would rule on the throne forever (2 Samuel 7:8–16). So God regularly made covenants with individual people.
However, He also made a covenant with the whole nation of Israelites after rescuing them from Egypt. This covenant is known as the old covenant, the covenant at Sinai, or the Mosaic covenant. Under this covenant, God promised to multiply their descendants (Deuteronomy 30:5), give them possession of the Promised Land (Exodus 23:30–31), make them a blessing to the surrounding nations (Deuteronomy 4:6–8), and be their God and that they would be His people (Exodus 29:45–46). However, these promises were conditional and would happen only if they continued "loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him" (Deuteronomy 11:22). It didn't take long for the Israelite people to discover that they were not capable of living up to these conditions.
While facing the devastating consequences of having broken this covenant, God comforted His people by promising a new covenant someday. This new covenant would include a new heart and the supernatural ability to not turn away from it. "I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me" (Jeremiah 32:39–40). One way God would accomplish this He explained through the prophet Ezekiel: "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezekiel 36:27). Paul explained to the Galatians, "walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh… If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16, 25). God's own indwelling Spirit empowering His people to keep "loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him" is part of this new covenant.
God also promised a few other things in this new covenant. "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). "I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me" (Jeremiah 33:8). Perhaps this forgiveness of sin is why Matthew's account of the Passover meal records that Jesus said, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:27–28). This forgiveness of sins and new heart that fears the Lord empowered by His Holy Spirit leads to an intimate personal relationship with God. As part of the new covenant, God promised, "no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest" (Jeremiah 31:34). Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). God promised, "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33).
Once the new covenant has taken effect, God promised, "David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings, and to make sacrifices forever" (Jeremiah 33:17–18). We know God "worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come" (Ephesians 1:20–21). So Jesus, a descendant of David (according to his human lineage) is now seated on the throne forever. The letter to the Hebrews also instructs us that "every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:11–14). In this way, the Levitical priests have a man who "holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever… He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself" (Hebrews 7:24, 27).
The Israelite people had been waiting for generations for God to institute this new covenant. Jesus' declaration at the Passover meal was the announcement that His death on the cross would be the beginning of these promises being fulfilled.
We understand the significance of the cup and the reference to the new covenant, we must still understand the role of blood. When a covenant was made between two parties, one customary step in the process was to comingle their blood by dripping some blood into a common cup and then drinking from that cup to seal the agreement and symbolize their new relationship. Thus, Jesus offering this Cup of Redemption in His blood was His invitation to His followers to enter this new covenant relationship with Him. Every person can accept this invitation to receive forgiveness, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and a new personal relationship with God by recognizing Jesus' role as your High Priest and allowing Him to reign as King in your life.
Understanding the situational context of the Passover Seder, the biblical context of the promise of a new covenant, and the cultural context of blood in making covenants, perhaps now we have a new grasp on what Jesus meant when He said, "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20).
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